Lost Masterpieces

The Blue Diamond Affair: The Jewel Heist That Became a Diplomatic Nightmare

A jewel heist carried out by a Thai gardener against his rich Saudi prince boss led to a police investigation, murder, more theft, and a diplomatic rift between the two nations.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

At the time, it must have seemed like the perfect plan. He was an unassuming Thai gardener working for a rich Saudi prince, who had more than his fair share of fine jewels.

Kriangkrai Techamong had the access, the chutzpah, and an exit strategy. Surely Prince Faisal bin Fahd wouldn’t miss a few pieces — and by “a few,” Kriangkrai had his eye set on about $20 million worth of bling.

The Blue Diamond Affair, as the incident has become known, is now the stuff of legend, a heist too crazy even for the big screen and one that would set a new standard for “get rich quick” schemes.

Kriangkrai was initially successful, although his plan included fleeing to his home country, so it’s not as if he expected to escape suspicion entirely. But once back in Thailand, things started to go very wrong.

For over two decades, the fallout from the affair has raged on. In the aftermath of the theft, the cast of characters has expanded to include Thai officials behaving badly, murdered Saudi investigators, and a major diplomatic rift between the two nations.

In the end, virtually none of the players have faced serious consequences and much of the original loot—including a rare 50-carat blue diamond that is said to be even larger than the infamous Hope Diamond—remain missing.

It all started in 1989 on the grounds of a palace in Riyadh. Kriangkrai certainly wasn’t the first employee to dream of coming into a windfall on the job, or the first to dream of righting the vast economic disparity between employer and employee. But he is the only one who has so dramatically turned those visions into reality — or at least tried to.

Under the cover of darkness one night, the gardener put his plan into action. He scaled the outside wall of the palace, stole in through a second-floor window, and liberated 200 pounds worth of jewelry from the family safe.

While the exact details of the theft have never been revealed, some accounts claim that he absconded with his booty by filling up the bag of a vacuum cleaner and wheeling it out. (He wouldn’t have looked entirely out of place if spotted; Kriangkrai sometimes pitched in as a palace janitor.)

He had captured a prize that included not only the famed Blue Diamond, but a $2 million sapphire necklace, a rare necklace of green diamonds, multiple gold watches, and, according to the Washington Post, “rubies the size of chicken eggs.”

However he managed to smuggle this hefty loot out of the palace, Kriangkrai didn’t waste any time in getting it far away from the scene of the crime. He shipped the spoils back to Thailand via DHL and followed in its path shortly thereafter.

It didn’t take long for the theft to be discovered, and, when it was, it was pretty clear who was responsible. The Saudis contacted officials in Thailand, who arrested Kriangkrai.

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But he no longer had the jewels. After arriving home, Kriangkrai had sold his spoils—for much less than they were worth—to a jeweler named Santhi Sithanakan. In exchange for a reduced sentence, he quickly gave up the name of his dealer.

In most successful heist investigations, this is where the story ends. The perpetrators are arrested, the stolen goods recovered, and life returns to normal. But this is the Blue Diamond Affair, where nothing follows its prescribed plot.

Thai officials recovered the Saudis’ missing treasure and returned it to its rightful owner.

But when the jewels were back in the palace, the Saudis began examining them and realized that there was some trickery afoot. They determined that up to 80 percent of the “valuables” were fake, replaced by poor paste replicas of the originals.  

While the Saudis were discovering that their precious jewels were now worthless forgeries, wives of top Thai officials began appearing at events around the country allegedly sporting some glittering new accessories that looked suspiciously like the jewels formerly known as Prince Faisal’s.

It was an insult too blatant for the Saudis to ignore. They decided to send a group of emissaries to Thailand to try to get to the bottom of things.

On February 1, 1990, three of the newly arrived Saudi diplomats were murdered in Bangkok under suspicious circumstances. Later that month, the fourth representative, a Saudi businessman, disappeared and is presumed to have met the same fate.

Like most twists of the Blue Diamond Affair, the truth behind the assassinations has never been uncovered. The Saudis contend that Thai police officers implicated in the continuing theft were responsible for the deaths. It’s unclear if that was actually the case — a classified U.S. cable sent in 2010 suggested that the murders may have been committed by Hezbollah — but that doesn’t mean the Thai authorities were innocent.

In 1994, the jewelry dealer Santhi, who was a key witness in the case as he could name the buyers was kidnapped for three days. That same year, his wife and son were found dead in a car

As the clean-up of the scandal continued, and many high profile Thai officials found their reputations and freedom under threat, their own cover-up of any impropriety continued.

In 1994, the jewelry dealer Santhi, who was a key witness in the case as he could name the buyers was kidnapped for three days. That same year, his wife and son were found dead in a car.

"The police here are bigger than the Government itself," Mohammed Said Khoja, a top Saudi diplomat in Thailand, told The New York Times in 1994. "I am a Muslim, and I stay because I feel I am fighting the devils."

As the saga raged on, diplomatic ties between the two nations soured. Thai workers in Saudi Arabia lost their work permits and were returned to their home country.

Saudi Arabia downgraded its diplomatic ties with the country. And as late as 2010, thousands of Thai Muslims were stuck in limbo waiting to receive travel visas to make their pilgrimage to Mecca. The Saudis, it seemed, were holding the permits hostage under the excuse of “technical reasons.”

This is the point in a blockbuster heist movie where justice would start being doled out, solutions would be proffered, a rare 50-carat blue diamond would be discovered, and all would begin to be righted.

But real life diamond heists are a bit messier.

Five officers were eventually indicted, but, to the chagrin of the Saudis, the case against them was dismissed in 2015 on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

The blue diamond remains missing in action, while its sister stones have gone on to fetch millions of dollars at auction. (In 2016, CNN reported that there was something of a blue diamond “obsession” in the auction world. The previous November, a 12.03 carat version named “Blue Moon” had sold for $48.4 million.)

Perhaps the only player in the saga who has found any peace is the man who started the whole thing to begin with.

I am confident that all my misfortunes are the result of a curse from the Saudi diamond I stole, so I’ve decided to enter the monkhood for the rest of my life to redeem my bad karma

In 2016, Foreign Policy revealed that Kriangkrai had decided to become a monk. His sentence for his crime was relatively light; the former gardener only served three years of his jail term. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t punished in other ways, too, as is the fabled nature of ill-begotten diamonds and their curses.

“I am confident that all my misfortunes are the result of a curse from the Saudi diamond I stole, so I’ve decided to enter the monkhood for the rest of my life to redeem my bad karma,” Kriangkrai told Foreign Policy.

As the article noted, he may not have entirely washed his soul clean of the affair. When he became a Buddhist monk, Kriangkrai was bestowed with a new name. He is now known as “He Who Has Diamond Knowledge.”